October 17, 2004


Masterpiece Theatre's brilliant 'Lost Prince' exposes sad family drama the royals tried to hide (Ruthe Stein, October 16, 2004, SF Chronicle)

Queen Elizabeth II might envy the olden days when an undesirable royal could be stashed away far from the glare of the media. The tragedy is that one of the Queen's uncles was hidden from view almost a century ago not for any indiscretion -- he was scarcely old enough to be indiscreet -- but because of the ignorance of the medical profession and because his family was willing to do the expedient thing.

Prince John, the subject of the stunning Masterpiece Theatre miniseries "The Lost Prince,'' had epilepsy and what would now be called a learning disability. But there were no neurological drugs to treat him then, only witch- doctor "remedies'' such as force feeding the youngster with a mustard concoction that made him throw up.

The youngest of six children of George V and Mary, Prince John was their disposable offspring. The royal couple already had produced an heir, Edward VIII who famously would abdicate for the woman he loved, and a spare, George VI, who reigned in his older brother's place and fathered the current queen.

So when little Johnnie becomes an embarrassment, throwing fits in front of the servants and unable to answer his doctors' most rudimentary questions, more out of fright than ignorance, he is sequestered to a far corner of the family estate with only his devoted nanny to keep him company. Occasionally, Georgie (as the future king was then known) pays a visit. He's the brother closest in age to Johnnie and the only sibling to care about him.

Stephen Poliakoff, one of England's foremost playwrights, became intrigued by the story of this sad forgotten royal. "His short life,'' as Poliakoff has put it, "started at the height of the imperial splendor of the British Empire, and when he died the whole of that empire had been ripped apart by the First World War.'' His exceptionally smart teleplay views the war -- at its heart a massive squabble among the relatives ruling England, Germany and Russia -- through Johnnie's innocent eyes. [...]

Beyond the intimate family story, "The Lost Prince'' also offers a quick and painless history lesson. The series never gets bogged down in the war, but it's always there in the background, a constant source of confusion for Johnnie and a great deal of other people as well.

As a dramatic retelling of a dramatic time in history, "The Lost Prince'' ranks right up there with "Elizabeth R'' and "I Claudius.'' Those who want to know more about the historical context should stick around at the end of each episode for an illuminating two-part documentary "The King, the Kaiser, and the Tsar.''

We hear naught but great things about this series. In particular, it apparently does a sterling job of showing how the European world fell apart over the course of WWI, a disaster from which they never recovered.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2004 5:03 PM

I remember a bit of a book review from the American Spectator from years ago. In the years before WWI, an English poet was paid in gold for some poetry he'd had published in a newspaper, so he decided to use the money for a trip to France. The reviewer pointed out what a distant world that was: poets published in newspapers, payment in gold in an amount sufficient to pay for a cross-channel trip, no passports or visas. That world's certainly gone forever, I'm afraid.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 17, 2004 6:30 PM